Thursday, November 30, 2006



Inside the Outside: an Anthology of Avant-Garde American Poets, Edited by Roseanne Ritzema
(Presa :S: Press, PO Box 792, Rockford, MI 49341, 2006)

Should we use the term “avant-garde” any more? It probably caused more trouble than it’s worth. Introducing Inside the Outside: An Anthology of Avant-Garde American Poets, editor Roseanne Ritzema admits that the poets therein use “widely divergent methods” and have significant “philosophical & aesthetic differences,” yet she insists upon their common ground as writers who “seek to break through barriers,” “have been active in the small press movement,” and are often “influenced by sister-arts, such as painting, music and drama” (7-8). Of the thirteen poets collected, at least five—the well-known Lyn Lifshin, Harry Smith, Eric Greinke, A.D. Winans, and Lynne Savitt—utilize traditional narrative or meditative techniques too consistently to be considered experimental. Ritzema is “satisfied that the major schools have been represented” (8), but where is a “Language,” a New York School, or a Black Mountain poet? While John Keene is a gay African-American experimentalist, at least one Asian-American innovative writer and a clearly experimental feminist woman should have been included. Nevertheless, the odd stylistic diversity of Ritzema’s anthology makes it an exciting test for readers who fancy themselves as poetic pluralists. My focus here will be on three especially engaging experimental poets.

The book features a generous selection from the work of Richard Kostelanetz, a major figure in the multi-genre “Avant-Garde” since the late sixties. In Kostelanetz’s “Visual Poem (Black/White),” a symmetrically fragmented rectangle, “WHITE” disappears, letter by letter, into its first letter on the top left-hand side and moves from just “E” to its totality in a nicely incongruous black boldface on the lower right (87). This movement is reversed with “BLACK on the lower left and upper right respectively. Therefore, both terms in this most striking of binary oppositions articulate their contrast and also succumb to diminution in each other’s formidable presence. However, the poem’s most intriguing feature is the quasi-diamond shaped center, in which “BLACK” diagonals flow from top to bottom and “WHITE” ones from bottom to top. Perhaps Kostelanetz asks us to see white as a reversal of the “logical” visual progression of black type on a page. Further, if we read the poem’s central diamond as horizontal lines, the top word is “BE,” and the rest are suggestive nonce words. Then again, if one frames the poem as a commentary on U.S. racial relations—before non-black/non-white categories gained the mainstream’s attention—then s/he can see that notions of appearance/disappearance are played out in four segregated corners and that the center features a desegregated complexity.

Kostelanetz’s abecedarian poem “MULTIPLE GHOSTS” (92-96)uses boldface for certain groups of letters (separated from other such groups) in a word to allow other words to emerge from within each one. In the title, one might expansively read: “Multiple ghosts tip hosts.” Apparitional or not, these extra words offer gratuitous signification to words in whose “houses” they reside. They “tip” us off about the signifier’s “materiality” and its “liberation.” “AMBIGUOUS” (ambiguous big us) alerts his community to the impressive size and potential of doubling discourse.

Like Kostelanetz, John Keene often calls attention to the visual and material presence of language. “’Inbetweenness’ (Morton Feldman)” literally foregrounds the framing of words by placing different parts of his carefully spaced poetic lines in boxes, some of which overlap or bisect one another. The bisections mimic liminal territory of the “music’s/ lyric revolt” against “the persistence/ of dead systems” (185) and thus provide a complication of caesuras in what is otherwise a straightforward Romantic homage.

In Keene’s “Prisms,” a vertical line down the center of two staggered columns with one-line stanzas complicates reading: even if this thin line seems a barrier to jagged horizontal scanning and a warning that the columns are segregated from one another’s poesis, it also dares us to leap over and subvert proscription. Let’s trying reading the title and first six left-hand lines, “Prisms/// attack motion// less mathematical than lyrical// effort notation// iconographic force// private ghosts dialogue// catching scribble,” and the first six right-hand lines, “Richter echo// breathing thinking// emotional event in mark// emanating splendor// by sensograph and eye// pictorial storms,” against a unifying of the columns: “Prisms/// attach motion/ Richter echo/ less mathematical than lyrical/ breathing thinking/ effort notation/ emotional event in mark/ iconographic force/ emanating splendor/ private ghosts dialogue/ by sensograph and eye/ catching scribble/ pictorial storms” (190). Even if unfolding of syntax, rhythm, and thought in the two columns and in the diagonal version are similar, and even if all can be considered meditations on prisms, interesting differences surface. To cite only one of several good examples, prisms’ “attack” on “motion” constituting “lyrical// effort notation” is not the same thing as this “attack” behaving as an “echo” (measurable on the “Richter” scale) that embodies “lyrical/ breathing thinking” before it is also recognized as “effort notation.” While the attachment of “lyrical” to “effort notation” is sublimely incongruous, the linkage of “lyrical” and “breathing” (as in bardic inspiration) seems much more “natural.” Multiple possibilities of signification proliferate further in Keene’s “Geodesy” (189) and “Oscillation” (195), in which five columns (without a separating line) of five words each can be read vertically, horizontally, and perhaps diagonally.

Perhaps my claim that Ritzema did not include Language Poetry in this anthology is only nominally accurate. Though historically unaffiliated with this group, Mark Sonnenfeld fractures continuity in ways that make his work resemble a good deal to be found in anthologies like Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree. In “flower green repellent tip a) spec dualism,” disjunctive effects are densely staged:

all in-between anyway to what I suppose is going
claw style sil crafts this crafts this knuckle language at
least in vertigo, alouds, contingency,
scream systema hoods pru for the drop
like notes in its analysis from unknown
like there suppose                (ache, pound) (263)

Setting his sights on the “vertigo” of “contingency,” an “in-between” that does not gently synthesize but aggressively “screams,” “aches,” and “pounds” against comfortably known “systema,” Sonnenfeld uses a “claw(ing) style” to re-“craft” grammar and syntax, turning the adverb “aloud” into the third-person singular verb or plural noun “alouds,” and he shatters prudence into the untranslatable but viscerally cogent “pru for the drop.”

Reminiscent of Ashbery’s poems in The Tennis Court Oath that were so important to early Language poetry, the fifteen numbered fragmentary utterances of Sonnenfeld’s “1. vomit” offer meaning in the process of disappearance or dis-integration: “9. Gooney. one of the manhole./ 10. is red airfoil is variation./ 11. film treatment tablelands./ 12. small limp tumble two:nine” (268). Sonnenfeld sometimes assails the integrity of the word, as in a brief poem’s opening part: “Vh dden transmitterunderio/ rehsilLd-// F a t ramaticalil term a n (,s)ckjeep C., nHorndo" (279). As in the work of Steve McCaffery and David Melnick’s Pcoet, the more recognizable vestiges of words, piled together, tease the reader into trying to find a sensible transmitter hidden under the jumble—with “tra(u)matic” non-results.

Inside the Outside would be a misleading starting point for someone seeking to get up to speed on the innovative poetry of the last thirty or so years, but it helpfully covers some material that other collections usually leave out. For those who already read a good deal of this kind of writing, I can report that it introduced me to Keene and Sonnenfeld’s writing and made me more fully aware of the variety and range of Kostelanetz’s poetry.


Thomas Fink is the author of four books of poetry, mostly recently No Appointment Necessary (Moria Poetry, 2006) and After Taxes (Marsh Hawk Press, 2004), an e-chapbook, Staccato Landmark (Beard of Bees, 2006), and two books of criticism on contemporary poetry. His work has appeared in Talisman, Verse, Jacket, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Otoliths, and numerous other journals. His paintings hang in various collections.


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